DeVries touts benefits of technology in dairy-cow feeding efficiency

Dan Hansen
Precision feeding technology can help ensure that dairy cows have high quality feed readily available, which results in more meals per day, more feed intake and higher milk production.

GREEN BAY – The recent Alltech Dairy School focused on utilizing technology to improve cow management and milk production.

The leadoff speaker was Professor Trevor DeVries, current research chair in Dairy Cattle Behavior and Welfare at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada.

DeVries is currently researching how optimizing nutrient delivery in dairy cows can help meet industry demand and increase production without over-supplementing their feed.

He noted that many people associate technology on twenty-first century dairy farms with robotic milking, but stressed that precision dairy management also includes technologies designed to automate other tasks such as cleaning, bedding, ventilation and feeding.

Labor challenges

DeVries stressed that labor shortages will be the driving force behind the implementation of technology on North American dairy farms well into the future. “In response to that we’re seeing the development of technology and automation at an exponential rate,” he said. 

Technology can reduce labor costs while also improving the producer’s quality of life in respect to management of the dairy herd. 

“It can help create better physical and mental health by reducing stress, providing more flexibility in managing their time, especially for owner-operators who do much of the milking themselves as well as improving health and comfort for their animals,” he said.

“Use of precision technology also needs to make economic sense by providing a profitable return on investment,” he said.

Feeding accuracy

DeVries noted that most producers feed cows at the group level. “They need to think about how they can use technology to better accomplish that,” he said, “but precision feeding technology also enables producers to feed animals at the individual level.”

Producers also need to consider accuracy as well as precision when it comes to feeding cattle. “Are we providing diets that might not be as accurate to the formulation that we actually intend those diets to be?” DeVries asked.

He reported that a recent research study revealed that some diets exceeded the TMR in the formulated values for a variety of nutrients but also that some diets were underfeeding targeted nutrients. 

“We saw a whole bunch of variations – some were feeding way too much energy relative to the formulation while others were underfeeding. Some underfed crude protein by an average of .4 percentage points under formulation,” DeVries explained. 

Feed samples from a study conducted on 25 large California dairies showed deviations of up to 10 percent from the target diet and also revealed variations in the return on investment related to the cost of their feed. “Our challenge is to ensure that the feed delivered actually matches the diet that is formulated.” he said. 

Deviation causes

Variations from the targeted diet may be caused by how often dry matter is fed, according to DeVries. “On some farms dry matter is fed once a day, on some it’s once a week, and some feed it only once a month,” he related. 

“The more often we feed dry matter the more control we have over our ingredients, the more that we can potentially match what is actually going into that diet to what we think is going into the diet,” he stressed. 

Another cause for feeding variations may be from improper feeding protocols. “We need to have the same thing done by each feeder day in and day out,” DeVries emphasized.

Being able to track whether actual feed is matching the target diet is key to efficient feeding. “We can do this manually but the good news is that we have technology that can help make monitoring more efficient while saving time.”

Monitoring systems

“We have NIR (Near Infrared) systems now on self-propelled mixers that are able to monitor in real time the dry matter and allow the system software to automatically adjust the unloading rate and the amount of feed that’s going into those diets to make sure they’re as accurate as possible,” DeVries explained.

It’s also important for producers to know if their cows are receiving a consistent diet. “We also need to know how much the diet varies from day to day and how it affects milk production,” he said. “We’ve seen a 6.6 pound difference in dry matter intake based on variation in feeding, and we’ve seen a 21-pound difference in milk production based on the variability of the day-to-day feeding.”

Differences in milk production can be attributed to genetics, rations and other factors. “Simply making sure their diet is more consistent every day could be a high component of trying to get those extra pounds of milk out of the cows," DeVries suggested.

“Not only did we see the relationship between feed intake and production but we also saw the same with feed efficiency. The farms that were producing more milk with less feed were doing that with consistent diets on a daily basis,” he reported.

Consistency important

“One of the things we know is that dairy cows love consistency from a behavior standpoint, with a milking routine,” DeVries stated. “We want consistency in the way we house cows, manage cows, milk cows. The more consistent we can keep their diet, the better their health and the more efficient their milk production will be.”

The other important aspect of consistency is making sure the cows actually consume their feed. “It’s important to have high quality forages because that will directly affect the eating behavior of the cows. More digestible forage results in a quicker return to eating which results in more meals per day, more feed intake and more milk,” he said.

He noted that currently there are a lot of technology options to automate theses processes that remove some of human factors that lead to variations, while improving daily accuracy and consistency with the cows’ diet. 

Proper feed delivery can provide a huge incentive for cows to go to the feed bunk, according to DeVries. “If we provide feed more often during the day we can help increase production. Fatty acid composition is directly related to the rumen environment of the cows in terms of digestion and production and prevention of acidosis,” he said.

“Farms that were feeding cows at least three times per day recorded higher milk production suggesting a more consistent intake pattern and rumen environment,” he said. 

Time for technology

The challenge for many farms is realizing that they could incorporate technology specifically to recognize when there is not enough feed in the feed bunk or when feed is not well distributed among the cows throughout the day, according to DeVries.

“Tracking the presence or absence of feed and the timing of feed delivery is necessary to help determine whether delivery occurs on a consistent basis,” he said. “Technology also can be used to formulate a specific diet based on their time in lactation and for tailoring a specific diet for high-producing cows.”

DeVries reported that technology also can help producers look at individual cows from different perspectives including their health, behavior, activity patterns, and identify conditions that call for improved cow maintenance.

Summing up he said: “Labor challenges will continue to fuel the need for automation in the dairy industry, and technology options, including creating greater accuracy in diet preparation, feed delivery, and ensuring cows have sufficient access to feed so they have sufficient feed consumption to achieve their optimum milk production.”